the interim CEO and president of new brunswick-based Saint Peter’s Healthcare discusses his 40 years of experience, and what’s next in medical care

by Jessica Jones-Gorman • Photos By Amessé Photography

In his decades-long career as a healthcare administrator, Les Hirsch has testified twice before the U.S. Congress to secure necessary federal aid for hurricane-ravaged hospitals, helped his systems garner numerous awards for patient safety and clinical quality, and implemented major strategic and financial initiatives at each institution he has served. And when he added the title of interim CEO in March of this year, after having arrived as president in 2015, his intentions were to bring that same level of care to the New Brunswick-based facility.

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“Saint Peter’s is now in its 110th year of serving the community of New Brunswick, and its Catholic mission is at the core of what we do,” Hirsch noted. “Healthcare is a big business, one of the biggest in the country, but our bottom line is taking care of the less fortunate and vulnerable— meeting the needs of the people who live in this community.”

Hirsch, who has twice been chairman of the New Jersey Hospital Association board of trustees, has also served on the American Hospital Association’s Regional Policy Board and been the recipient of numerous leadership honors, including the Distinguished Service Award from the American College of Healthcare Executives–New Jersey.

His career began almost 40 years ago with a college internship. “I became interested in healthcare after working for the Essex County Office on Aging during my senior year of college,” Hirsch said. “Before that, I had considered law, but that opportunity really redirected me. It made me realize what a wonderful industry this is.”

He worked with the Regional Health Planning Council in Newark and at Clara Maass Memorial Hospital before taking a position with Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan as assistant director of operations. (“It was a wonderful experience being part of such a major institution,” Hirsch said.) He also worked at Bellevue for two years, until 1988, when he took a position as executive vice president and chief operations officer with Cooper Health Systems in Camden. He became president and CEO of the institution in 1999 and worked in that capacity for three years before he was recruited by St. Joseph Hospital in Denver.

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“It was my introduction to Catholic healthcare in the largest single-site hospital in Colorado,” Hirsch said.

He worked at St. Joseph for three years before moving to New Orleans to take a position with Touro Infirmary, a faith-based healthcare system. He had been CEO for all of seven days when Hurricane Katrina ripped into the Gulf Coast, devastating vast areas, including New Orleans.

“It was a challenging life experience and truly a test of leadership, tenacity, and courage for the entire city and state,” Hirsch said. “We evacuated and temporarily closed the hospital on my 11th day on the job. But 27 days later, we were the first hospital in New Orleans to reopen, and were the only adult acute care facility in operation in the Orleans Parish for five and a half months.”

Hirsch was there as the city struggled to rebuild, speaking twice before the U.S. Congress to advocate for the needs of New Orleans hospitals. He talks candidly about the personal and professional impact that the storm had on his life.

“For me, Katrina never went away,” he explained. “There wasn’t a day for the three years I lived and worked in New Orleans that it wasn’t a part of my life. And while tragic, it was an unbelievable life experience from which I learned so much.”

The next career opportunity came in 2008, in the form of being recruited back to New Jersey to work as CEO of Saint Clare’s Hospital in Denville. “It was a tough decision to leave New Orleans,” Hirsch admitted. “But I saw the move as a chance to come back home. Although my wife and I loved and welcomed the opportunities to live in Denver and Louisiana, New Jersey has always been the place we consider home, and to move back was simply wonderful.”

At Saint Clare’s, Hirsch oversaw a 400-bed, 2,800-employee, $310 million-in-annual-revenues operation that includes a 100-bed behavioral health hospital and a number of other facilities and services, including a continuing care retirement community and the Saint Clare’s Foundation—its mission to promote health and wellness in Morris and Sussex counties (a majority of the Foundation’s assets have been gifted to the Morristown-based nonprofit Community Foundation of New Jersey). During his tenure, Saint Clare’s was the recipient of numerous awards for patient safety and clinical quality, including recognition by The Joint Commission, The Leapfrog Group, and other leading healthcare ratings organizations.

“It was an excellent organization with an excellent culture,” Hirsch said.

After seven years at the Saint Clare’s helm, the executive took his current position at Saint Peter’s. “I’ve been in the healthcare industry for almost 40 years now, and 30 of those years have been right here in New Jersey,” he said. “I have built wonderful relationships here, some of which date back to 1977, and it has been very gratifying to resurrect those ties.”

As the former CEO of several hospital systems around the country, and as two-time board chairman of the New Jersey Hospital Association, Hirsch has plenty of perspective to offer on the future of the industry—especially when it comes to issues that affect New Jersey.

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“Unfortunately, medicare care is a very contentious topic today,” he said. “But irrespective of either side of the issue, the fact is that people need it.”

And while the governmental stake in this vital service remains to be seen, Hirsch says the different sides in the debate can and should be working toward a satisfactory compromise.

“With the Affordable Care Act, millions gained access to care that they otherwise would not have been able to, largely though Medicaid expansion. That’s not to say the Act didn’t need modification,” he said. “As a country, we need to seriously look at the financing of healthcare and provide the people with the services they need and deserve. If it’s managed accordingly, both the country’s health status and cost profile will improve.”

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Saint Peter’s Healthcare System
254 Easton Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ
732.745.8600 / saintpetershcs.com